Project Canterbury

Robes and the Choir Habit.

By Percy Dearmer.

London: The Warham Guild, [1933].

THE excellent traditional word, ‘robes,’ customarily includes the garments worn in church which are not ‘vestments’ as are the cope and chasuble; and the distinction is a convenient one.


The cassock may be of any colour. In the sixteenth century a fashion grew up in Spain of gentlemen wearing nothing but black, and this spread over Italy and other parts of Europe; but did not obtain in England. How entirely it ruled in Spain at the time of the Armada may be seen in the pictures of El Greco. With the clergy and ministers in England as elsewhere, however, black became general. Gradually this ‘undertaker’s’ tradition has changed; in the nineteenth century the bishops were wearing purple, and at the other end servers began to wear scarlet. In the time of Edward VII the King’s chaplains adopted cassocks of the same colour, a rather crude scarlet in harsh material. Then the idea grew up that not only in the royal chapels but in churches claiming to be in ‘royal foundations’ all the choir should wear scarlet. This had no authority; but some incumbents [3/4] still worry about whether they may have the ‘right’ to put their choirs into scarlet. The truth is that cassocks may be of any colour; but that for aesthetic reasons black and scarlet might well be at the bottom of the list. Old-fashioned tailors do not like the trouble of making materials beyond black, scarlet, and a horrid purple which has often been used for choristers; but things are now moving, and better materials are being dyed. At Westminster Abbey, for instance, besides the red, the servers wear a very good medium blue. There is much to be said for cathedral bodies having a colour of their own: blue, medium or dark, is good; and the various tints of darkish green have not, so far as I know, been yet tried: they would not clash, as scarlet does, with the crimson of Oxford M.A. hoods; and there are also many good reds and russets. Now that so many parsons wear grey, a cassock of that colour—medium or dark—is often more convenient than black. In the Middle Ages clergy and choristers alike had their cassocks made of any stuff that happened to be forthcoming; and the varied result of many colours is, I think, the prettiest of all—if the surplices are of decent length.


But the bad practice of using short surplices is still with us. It is due in great part to the fact that people always think their surplices are longer than they are; and besides, tailors make more profit and seem to give more for their money. For an ugly stinted surplice can be made of four yards, whereas a good one may run into eight or ten yards. The filthy condition of our atmosphere also leads to economy in washing; but this is a declining cause; for there is much less smoke now than there was [4/5] twenty years ago, and every year the air becomes less polluted. We need only here draw the reader’s attention to our illustrations, and add that the sleeves should always be ample, and that the idea surplice should be about six inches from the ground, or even two, or one, as mediaeval surplices were, and as they remained until the era of Victorian bad taste. Meanwhile those churches that are [5/6] in a bad way can move gradually—using, for instance, a big boy’s surplice for a smaller boy, and so on. We are not here concerned with clerks and servers; but it is worth noticing that an organist is most comfortable in a gown; and that, if he wears white, a sleeveless rochet, or a winged rochet, leaves his arms free.


The colour of the hood is of course determined by the university degree. When the parson or chorister has no [6/7] degree, he should not wear any kind of hood; indeed I venture to think that the nineteenth-century custom of using hoods for theological colleges was ill-advised. On the one hand, there is nothing discreditable in not having a degree—many distinguished authors, soldiers, and others have none; on the other hand, ordinary candidates for orders should have every inducement to take a degree, and with so many modern universities this is no longer a difficulty. As for shape, it is best to conform to the general custom; but that custom can be improved by modifying the tape-like piece of material at the neck. There have been so many eccentricities during the last fifty years, and they have alienated so many people, that it is wiser to avoid every suspicion of ‘dressing up,’ even in a case like the full cape-like form of the hood which has historical justification.


In some departments the reform of church ornaments has been slow (in the discarding of the unauthorized ‘chalice veil,’ for instance), but in some it has been rapid. Thirty years ago the clergy were wearing coloured stoles, black stoles, narrow ribands, or nothing, over their surplices. [Stoles, originally towels carried over the shoulder by deacons, came to be worn by priests also, with the chasuble; whether they are intended by the First Prayer Book (and thus are included in the Ornaments Rubric) is doubtful; the learned Report on Ornaments of the Upper House of the Convocation of Canterbury (No. 416, 1908) decided in the negative. Stoles came to be used sometimes with the surplice or rochet for baptisms and weddings in the fifteenth century, but the custom was not general.] Now the scarf is general; but it is still too often spoilt by being gathered and pleated. It should [7/8] be a strip of rather soft black silk (of stuff, for nongraduates), not folded at all, but worn full and allowed to gather into natural folds. I may add that I am grateful to the Warham Guild for producing a beautifully soft and yet substantial silk. The scarf is best kept flat, so that no fold is formed, or else hung quite loosely on a peg.

The custom of putting medals or other official badges on the tippet grew up, I think, in the reign of King Edward VII, and may be descended from the common illusion in the nineteenth century that nobleman’s chaplains had formerly worn scarves of the colour of their patrons’ liveries. Personally I rather regret the custom; but I have to follow it at Westminster!

After watching one or two attempts to re-introduce the almuce I have come to the conclusion that the subject is rather a dangerous one and is best left alone. Almuces were introduced in the later Middle Ages primarily for warmth and secondarily for social distinction: churches were then horribly cold, and sumptuary laws forbade the middle classes to wear the same materials as the aristocracy. Both reasons have happily lost their power, and almuces have almost disappeared on the Continent—as they did in England during the Elizabethan period. [They are still used at Bayeux, and also at Rouen where they are always carried on the left arm.] For warmth, scarves can be lined with black cloth (I use one with much comfort during cold spells); there is no historical reason that I know of against a cathedral church using some coloured lining of silk or cloth and treating such a scarf as an almuce—for all its clergy (fur would be too hot nowadays).

Doctors of divinity at Oxford have a scarlet chimere, [8/9] like that of a bishop, which may be worn on important occasions over the surplice. Doctors of other universities may not wear chimeres unless the university to which they owe their degree has authorized the garment.

Copes are outside the scope of this article; but, as is well known, they may be worn over the surplice by clergy and singing clerks alike. In our cathedral churches they are often used on state occasions, as well as in accordance with Canon 24, for the Holy Communion. The clergy should wear their scarves under the cope, in accordance with both pre- and post-Reformation custom.


People constantly ask me about bands. They are not liturgical ornaments, being of later origin than the rubrics and canons. They are in fact a kind of collar worn with the cassock, and in the eighteenth century, when the clergy wore cassock and gown in the streets, they were an article of everyday attire. They are still required as part of the court dress and also at university functions. Some people find them rather tiresome to use at ordinary parish services; and for this reason they have tended, regrettably perhaps, to disappear. The London clergy who attended Westminster Abbey at the Royal Maundy attired in black cassocks, gowns, hoods, and flat pleated scarves, looked very dismal until the custom was revived of their wearing bands. With such a costume bands have the most happy effect; and they should be worn on all ceremonial occasions with the gown; and also on state occasions with the surplice; [9/10] and here perhaps I may be allowed to mention that this is what is done at the Abbey. In general, we may say that it would be good if they were more used than they are, and that in fact their use seems to be increasing.


In the eighteenth century the gown was often used even for the Occasional Services, such as Baptism and [10/11] the Burial of the Dead. In the nineteenth the pendulum swung to the opposite extreme and the surplice came to be used at all sorts of inappropriate occasions. The gown should be used for the many little services outside the Prayer Book which are so common: for lectures and addresses; for musical functions; and for catechizing (with a bright cassock). The innovation of preaching in a surplice, once the cause of bitter party antagonism, has been for two generations pretty generally established (though the mistake of wearing a stole also has been very generally corrected). That was a pity, I think; for, though the surplice is as lawful as the gown, the use of the surplice gives less variety and ‘point’; and it has helped in the deterioration of our. preaching; for it is much easier to preach in a gown, and the face and hands (important aids to a good preacher) are freer and better seen. But then we must confess that for oratory, cassock, gown, and tippet only—without hood or bands—are best, though the hood is mentioned in the Prayer Book of 1549, and thus comes under the Ornaments Rubric. [The full-sleeved priest’s gown is much the best for ease and freedom in preaching.] One compromise was that of Dr. Liddon, who used to take off his hood in the pulpit and preach in a surplice. But he always wore bands.


Finally, may I be allowed to say that a ‘naked’ cassock (especially if it be black) is really ugly without a gown. It was never meant to be worn thus. In every vestry there should be a gown for each of the ministers; and they should slip them on if they want to go into the church for any purpose. These gowns may be either [11/12] academical or full-sleeved, the latter being the priest’s gown made of silk for judges’ and mayors’ chaplains, and for use at levees. Stuff is much cheaper; but our grandfathers often used to present a silk gown for their parson to preach in.

Vergers should of course always wear gowns, and these may well have a little quiet colour in the velvet facings. Cassocks have not been traditionally worn by  [12/13] them: we take the cassock then as at most optional, but the verger’s gown as essential. Vergers carry wands of any appropriate design or material; and in our cathedral and collegiate churches there are also beadles who generally wear gowns of a different cut, and carry, with fine effect, maces over their shoulders.

In some collegiate churches the choirboys wear caps and gowns, as do the scholars in public schools—but we will not proceed to go into the academic realm, except to say that in the great churches where college caps are used it is better to keep to the traditional hard ‘board,’ but with a soft part to fit the head; they are carried in the hand so much (especially nowadays when many people prefer to be bareheaded in the open air) that soft varieties become shapeless and messy, besides being troublesome to hold. The Cranmer cap is very good; but it is perhaps best reserved for such functions as funerals and for a few ceremonial occasions. The ordinary college cap is recognized and understood by the people, and is a comely thing with a good history behind it.


The people also recognize and respect a bishop’s rochet and chimere; and if I were a bishop, I should wear these and a scarf, whenever possible. A hood was not traditional with the episcopal chimere, and is said to have been an innovation of Samuel Wilberforce. Black chimeres should not be dropped altogether. Many mitres that have been made are distorted in shape and unbecoming. In their original form (they date from the Norman period) mitres were made quite low, as may be seen in thirteenth-century sculpture: thus made, they were dignified and graceful. Mitres are [13/14] difficult to make, and when amateurs have contrived them, they have not realized that a mitre which looks fairly low when it is flat, becomes ungainly in height when it is on the head. The greatest care is necessary in the design. It may be added that mitres ought to be used sparingly. Bishops can wear copes and mitres for Confirmations when they wish; but before the Reformation as well as after it, bishops generally confirmed in rochet and chimere. And, as most bishops, I believe, prefer it themselves, there is much to be said for preserving the old tradition on ordinary occasions. There are no doubt occasions for more display; but they are not very frequent. In any case bishops are well advised to refuse all changing or dressing up during a service, and only to remove the mitre on reaching their seat, and not put it on again till the Blessing. As to the crozier, bishops may carry it themselves, or it may be carried by a chaplain. An archbishop has, in addition to his crozier, a cross, which is carried by his chaplain as his own processional distinction.

Four members of the choir of Westminster Abbey at the Coronation of James II.

Priest in cassock and surplice.

Dr. William Croft, as chorister at Westminster Abbey.

Priest in cassock, gown, tippet, and square cap.

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